The peaceful English village is the heart of so many classic crime stories that it’s really a character in itself. Especially pre 1945, a village can be the world in miniature, with its own class hierarchy and rumour mill. And most importantly, a sleepy country village comes with an expectation of calm and of untroubled innocence. Nothing could bad could possibly happen here, the inhabitants say to each other.
Until the village’s resident poison pen gets to work, that is, using their missives to expose the undercurrents of vice and malice hidden beneath the serene exterior. Such campaigns of anonymous letters are a staple of classic crime fiction, with writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Patricia Wentworth and plenty more using them as a way of ratcheting up the tension and psychological drama. But these letters are far more than just a convenient narrative device, and their damaging effects are not just confined to crime fiction. And that’s why today we’re diving into the murky, nasty world of the poison pen.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
On the surface, the poison pen letter appears to be a trivial thing. Or at least that’s how characters in detective novels usually react upon receiving their first one. They exclaim over it at breakfast, perhaps showing around to their companions and making light of it together. The text itself might be typewritten, or handwritten, or even made up of letters cut out of a newspaper or magazine, but the key thing is that it will be unsigned and lacking an easy way of identifying the author. The actual message will likely be an accusation of some kind — professional misconduct, perhaps, or personal duplicity. Adultery and corruption are popular recurring themes too.
In the case of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, published in 1942, the narrator receives an anonymous allegation that he and his sister Joanna are not, in fact, siblings but a couple masquerading as such for some nefarious reason. The pair have recently arrived in the quiet market town of Lymstock, hoping to lead a peaceful life while Jerry recuperates after a plane crash. Instead, they are quickly confronted by evidence that there is much more going on in the town than its virtuous appearance would suggest.
The poison pen letter was already a familiar enough device that Christie allows these two characters have a pleasingly meta conversation about how best to react to this first letter. “The correct procedure, I believe,” Joanna says, “is to drop it into the fire with a sharp exclamation of disgust.” When her brother proceeds to do so, she applauds him for doing it in a suitably theatrical manner. Yet as the plot unravels further and the extent of the poison pen’s activities emerges, it all begins to seem a lot less lighthearted.
The Moving Finger goes on to exhibit many classic facets of the poison pen campaign. Lots of people in Lymstock have been receiving these letters, it turns out, although many have been reluctant to speak about them openly. They destroy them in private instead, fearing that even a suggestion of impropriety will feed gossip that could tarnish their reputation. They’re also usually wary of involving the police, since making an official report comes with a certain amount of publicity and investigation. Although public image is a timeless concern of course, this preoccupation with one’s character or good name feels very typical of life in a small community pre Second World War to me. At a time when a lot of people lived in the same place, among the same people, for most of their lives, there was little chance of starting afresh and escaping a scandal.
“No smoke without fire” is a phrase that recurs a good deal in this book and many others with similar plots — the idea that the anonymous messages must be based on some kernel of truth, even if the writer is exaggerating or mistaken about some details. This is where we see the uglier side of human nature emerging, as neighbours begin to look differently at each other purely because of a sly, unsubstantiated suggestion.
Gossip and rumour are forces that a poison pen can harness very successfully. Nothing is so corrosive as suspicion. Christie tackled this topic directly in her 1939 Hercule Poirot short story “The Lernean Hydra”, in which the Belgian sleuth helps a doctor who is being targeted by an anonymous letter writer over the suggestion that he murdered his invalid wife so that he could marry his dispenser. The rumours grow like the monster from Greek mythology, with three new ones appearing every time one is cut off at its source. In both plots, Christie skilfully handles the psychological aspect of the poison pen campaign and how those words can become deeds. Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers from 1927 opens with a not dissimilar scenario to Christie’s short story, with sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey learning about the novel’s case after overhearing the grumbles of a doctor who has had his professional reputation decimated by rumours that he killed a patient. And ECR Lorac’s 1949 book Policemen in the Precinct contains another good example how powerful ill feeling can be, because it features the murder of a small community’s malicious gossip, Mrs Mayden. True, she didn’t commit her unkind insinuations to paper, but the sneaky verbal allegations she makes have a similar effect to poison pen letters. Those unpleasant but seemingly harmless letters that get tossed on the fire in disgust are a manifestation of dark, violent impulses, which will twist and grow if left unchecked.
So that’s the psychological appeal of the poison pen letter writer to the detective novelist. It’s a way of threading something really horrible through a seemingly bucolic setting and that can allow for interesting interplay between motive and character. But that’s not the only reason why poison pens make regular appearances in detective fiction. There are practical points about these letters too which allow a writer to give their sleuth some good old fashioned clue following to do.
At first glance, an anonymous letter might seem like a clueless crime. That is, after all, what the writer intends, and they will have taken precautions to avoid detection. By the time the golden age of detective fiction dawned, the criminological implication of fingerprints was pretty well known, so the writer would wear gloves as a matter of course. Further forensic investigation was still in the future, though, so they need not worry unduly about skin particles or saliva.
The composition of the letter itself can be revealing in its obscurity, too, depending on where the cut out letters were sourced from or if the typewriter can be traced via some typographical idiosyncrasy. I like Christie’s little flourish in The Moving Finger of selecting a dreary book of sermons as the poison pen’s raw material — clever both because it’s a book nobody was likely to look in regularly and also because the book’s moralising content feels very appropriate to its refashioned form. Handwriting too can be recognised or analysed, although I think modern investigators are less inclined than the golden age’s writers to consider graphology a reliable source of evidence. However, this matters little in stories where the real frisson of the poison pen plot stems from the fact that the perpetrator is known to the victims: among us, indeed.
I think some of the best practical investigation techniques for a poison pen plot are to be found in The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton, first published in 1946. Yes, this is a book aimed at younger readers — it’s part of Blyton’s “Five Find Outers” series, which she wrote from 1943 to 1961 and which all feature the crack sleuthing team of Larry, Fatty, Pip, Daisy, Bets and Buster the dog. It’s also a great poison pen mystery and one that easily holds its own against plenty of stories aimed at adults.
The five find outers are drawn into this poison pen mystery after Gladys, the housemaid at Pip and Bets’s home, receives a letter revealing supposedly “shameful” information about her upbringing, which in turn causes her to resign from her job. Feeling that this is unfair, the five (and Buster) set out to track down who is sending nasty anonymous communications to the inhabitants of their village of Peterswood. A classic concealment job has been done on the posting of these letters by sending them from a nearby town, so the five focus their attention on the logistics of this in order to narrow down the suspects. The bus doesn’t run very often, so who could have caught it and post the letter in time for the midday collection? It’s a method that much older sleuths would do well to remember — when you know how, you know who, after all.
After the break: the real life poison pens.
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When poison pen letters appear in a detective novel, there seems always to be at least one character who asserts that they must be written by a woman. “Poison is a woman’s weapon” is a cliché of the genre. The same reasoning that lies behind this — that poison doesn’t demand the physical strength that other methods of murder require — is extended to the poison on the page. Women are the ones who do the gossiping, or so the thinking goes, so they must be the ones who spread the rumours and send the nasty letters about them. Ridiculous stereotypes, of course, but ones which have become embedded in the classic crime fiction milieu.
That idyllic English village that plays host to the poison pen plot always has its fair share of well to do spinsters, women of independent means who have nothing to do except call upon each other, do charity work and pass on the latest scandals. I talked about “surplus women” and spinster sleuths in the first ever episode of this podcast and I do think that phenomenon has some bearing here too. Ideas about repression and fixation are often connected to the outbursts of a poison pen, since illicit liaisons and other such misbehaviour are a common theme of such letters. This desire to expose the seedy underbelly of village life and see sinners punished points to a prudishness about sex that is associated with a certain kind of woman. Although not a poison pen novel, I think Ngaio Marsh’s 1939 novel Overture to Death about a village amateur dramatic society is quite informative on this point, with two older single female characters who exhibit passionate and warped emotional attachments to a vicar. A poison pen campaign brings to the surface a potent cocktail of shame, moralising, prying, spying and piety — is this really something that women are more prone to, or is it just revealing that we think so? Male criminals have certainly used this assumption to their advantage across the genre.
Dorothy L. Sayers tackled this issue head on with her 1935 novel Gaudy Night, which is set in an Oxford women’s college and features a long running poison pen campaign by an unknown person from within the institution. From the moment that recurring Sayers character Harriet Vane is asked to undertake the investigation discreetly, as a former student, she grasps the reputational damage this story would do to the college if it got out. “Soured virginity’–‘unnatural life’–‘semi-demented spinsters’–‘starved appetites and suppressed impulses’–‘unwholesome atmosphere’–she could think of whole sets of epithets, ready-minted for circulation,” Sayers writes.
The novel is a whodunnit, but it’s a discursive one that spends plenty of time debating all sides of the problem as well (as perhaps is apt for an academically minded mystery). Women’s education at Oxford was still a relatively new concept at the time of writing, with Sayers having been among the first cohort of women graduates to receive their full degrees herself, in 1920. Many of the poison pen’s efforts are aimed at undermining this newly minted status, via references to harpies and crude representations of celibate repressions. The status of the independent academic woman, who pursues her aptitude for scholarship rather than adopting the traditional roles of wife and mother, is still a precarious one. As the Warden says, on the question of women’s education “even in Oxford we still encounter a certain number of people who maintain their right to disapprove”.
Class plays a role as well as gender, with much debate about whether any of the college servants would have the vocabulary or inclination to berate the dons in Virgilian hexameters. This comes up a fair bit in poison pen mysteries, actually — in The Moving Finger, Mrs Cleat, a local wise woman and the wife of the village gardener, is accused amid questions over whether she is “literate” enough to be the true author of the anonymous letters. These presumptions often make for a useful smoke screen when the purpose of the poison pen campaign is actually to victimise one individual under the cover of terrorising a whole community. A writer who is genuinely unbalanced might send letters indiscriminately; a criminal impersonating a poison pen will be much more deliberate about it.
In Gaudy Night, as the poison pen is able to continue terrorising the college unchecked, Harriet sinks deeper and deeper into the psychological mire of the case. And with good reason, because Sayers develops the connection between vicious words and vicious deeds very ably, as the tension in college rises. A suicide is attempted, a common development in the poison pen mystery as the poisonous missives do their work upon a receptive mind. Something similar happens in Patricia Wentworth’s 1955 novel Poison in the Pen — it’s a suspected suicide that results in spinster sleuth Miss Silver being called in to investigate the poison pen outbreak in the village of Tilling Green. The parallel between anonymous letters and the notes sometimes left behind by suicides is neatly drawn. It all comes down to the words.
Before I started researching this topic, I thought that poison pens were mostly a convenient trope used by detective novelists to the point of cliché. Like elaborate mechanisms that kill behind locked doors, I assumed they were more common in fiction than in fact. But a swift search through the newspaper archives proved me wrong — the first half of the twentieth century is absolutely full of accounts of real life poison pen mysteries. Here’s a few headlines to show you what I mean.
“Poison Pen Letters: Remarkable Story of Wrecked Homes and Society Victims” from Pall Mall Gazette, 12 May 1923
“New Poison Pen Mystery: Police Busy on Fresh Clues” from Sunday Post, 26 October 1924 (about an acquittal of a young woman in Berwick and renewed investigation)
“Mystery of Scottish Poison Pen: Glasgow Tenants Persecuted” from Dundee Evening Telegraph, 15 February 1935
“Poison Pen At Work: Husband and Wife Threatened in Letter” from Northern Whig, 12 March 1928
“Padiham Poison Pen Letters: Vile Communications to Bench Chairman” from Lancashire Evening Post, 24 October 1938
You get the idea. There’s an excellent article by Curtis Evans that goes into more detail about the real poison pen outbreaks of the 1920s and 30s that I’ll link to in the show notes, so if you’re interested in all of the venomous details, I strongly recommend you read that. And the anonymous letter habit did not die out when the Second World War started, by any means. Even the quickest internet search reveals news stories about recent and even ongoing poison pen incidents. One that especially caught my attention was the case of Manfield in North Yorkshire, which for 12 years beginning in 1987 was beset by an anonymous sender of vile and threatening letters. The culprit, who was eventually convicted in 2001, was one Dr James Forster, a retired academic and local resident. Over those dozen years, it’s estimated that 64 of the 86 households in the village received some kind of letter or threat from him. He reportedly spied on his neighbours and pried into their private lives, then sending letters about matters that irked him such as the vicar marrying a couple where one partner had been divorced and the fact that the parish clerk did not actually reside in the village. But lest we be lulled into thinking this was some gentle mystery story, it should also be noted that Forster stalked one woman, sent pornographic material to a teenage girl and sent another woman a letter that threatened a bombing. In real life, the actions of a poison pen are not cosy at all.
One of the earliest poison pen mysteries that I’ve come across is Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White from 1932. It’s also one of the best, in my opinion, and that’s mostly because of how well drawn its idyllic village setting is: “A perfect spot. Viewed from an airplane, by day, it resembled a black-and-white plaster model of a Tudor village, under a glass case.” It looks perfect, but the serpent is already in the garden. The poison pen transforms the postman into “the herald of disaster” and the cosy certainties of village life unravel as the murders begin. It’s the archetypal poison pen mystery.
The popularity of the poison pen as a plot device coincides neatly with the golden age of the detective fiction, peaking in the years between the first and second world wars. Although writers did continue to use it post 1945 — and of course the real life poison pens carry on to this day — the true classics of this niche came in the 1930s and early 1940s. As a literary device it feels tied to the fate of the tightly knit village communities in which it flourished, and which were to be altered forever by the social changes wrought by the war and a more mobile population. Everybody no longer knew everybody.
Because the chilling aspect of the poison pen letter is that it is written by a faceless other who is also somebody you know: an influx of strangers rather dilutes the effect.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated and edited by me, Caroline Crampton. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/poisonpen. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two with another episode.